Cheng Ho Shipyards

Lately I’ve been having fun designing ships for my Red Suns setting in Affinity Designer. I admit this artwork isn’t going to win any awards, but I really love how easily vector art allows me to communicate the images I have in my head.

Lately I’ve been focusing on more mundane designs produced by the designers and engineers working at the Cheng Ho Shipyards. In a universe where humanity still largely orients itself along the old NATO vs. Soviet Lines, Cheng Ho operates its shipyards exclusively within neutral systems and will license their designs to just about anyone.

Their design philosophy is simple: affordable, robust, reliable. Cheng Ho ships are solidly built with an emphasis on minimizing both expense and crew requirements. This philosophy has led to them becoming one of the largest design firms in the settled worlds.

The six ships here are their most popular designs and can be found operating in every major star system.

Red Suns: Faster than Light

I’ve often said that scale is an important thing to think about, especially in science fiction settings. It should be no surprise then that I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted faster than light travel to work in Red Suns.

For this setting I was aiming for a similar feel to the Forever War, where ships might be dozens or hundreds of light years from home and far from support. At the same time, I wanted star systems to be interconnected enough for interstellar trade and diplomacy to be practical.

Settlements end up clustered around major trade routes, even if the planets aren’t ideal.

Eventually I decided that ships in this universe will move between stars with something called the Bulgarin Drive. These drives work by warping space around a ship in such a way that the ship can move faster than light. Travel still takes time however, and in order to save myself from making any embarasing mistakes about distance I’ve decided that distances will be thought of mainly in the time it takes for a ship to reach its destination and that these travel times are partially determined by the skill of the ship’s navigator.

The effectiveness of Bulgarin Drives are strong affected by nearby gravity wells. Massive objects disrupt the bubble of warped space around a ship and so this determines what routes are possible. Before departure a ship may have to maneuver at sublight speeds for a signifigant amout of time before it reaches an adequate departure point, then it activated it’s Bulgarin Drive. Then months or even years later it arrives as close to it’s destination as local gravity conditions will allow.

This gravity-dependent behavior leads to three points that I am eager to exploit in worldbuilding and in story telling.

  • The limited number of acceptable arrival points in a star system creates opportunities to ambush ships as they drop out of FTL.
  • Smugglers and infiltrators can choose to take a longer route into a system if it means avoiding more well traveled areas of space.
  • In certain regions of space local gravity conditions align in just the right way to allow even faster FTL travel.

This third point is especially important for what I have planned in this setting and I’ve made a quick map of one of these Gravity Hyperlanes below.

Under normal conditions travelling from one end of this lane to the other might take a year for example, but because local conditions are just right the voyage can be accomplished in just six months.

My intention is for patterns of human settlement to be based around these hyperlanes. Easy travel will mean that colonies cluster around these lanes even if the systems are not ideal settlement sites, while the rare handful of Earth-like planets will be able to develop into self-sufficient units even if separated from these lanes.

After reading all that you might wonder how messages are transmitted. If a ship may take years to reach its destination then what about an email? Large amounts of data will still need to be carried by special courier ships, but short messages can be transmitted without needing to wait.

Bulgarin Transmitters, which work according to similar principles as the aformentioned FTL drive, are able to transmit short text-based messages nearly instantaneously with just two main limitations.

  • Messages have to be short. The transmitters require a lot of energy to work, so ships will have only have their transmitters active for short times. Receives can be kept on continuously however.
  • Messages need to be encoded. These transmitters suffer from a large amount interference so in order to receive messages intact they are transmitted in short bursts resembling old telegraph signals.

There are likely some flaws with this FTL concept that I’m not seeing, and it wouldn’t work for all settings, but I think it fits my rather well. It gives characters a way to communicate with some limitations, allows them ships to travel with reasonable speed. And most interesting to me, it will make spacers into a separate subculture of their own. Being gone from home for years and aging at different rates due to relativistic effects will quickly set them apart from their friends and family back home and I’m excited to explore this as I continue to build the setting.

Red Suns: A Retroscifi Adventure

Lately I’ve been working on a little side project titled Red Suns. It’s a retroscifi setting where the Cold War turns hot following a malfunction in one side’s early warning systems. By the time anyone realizes what happened it’s too late. Earth has been devastated by nuclear war and the conflict continues in orbit and on the moon’s surface.

Before the war began both the Americans and Soviets had been building an extensive infrastructure in space and on the moons surface. This included defensive lines on both sides of an agreed upon Lunar Demilitarized Zone. On the American side a large number and variety of defensive installations were built before the war started, the Soviets on the other hand were still in the process of building their fortifications when the war broke out.

After the war Earth ceased to be a viable home for the human race and efforts to explore space were quickly accelerated. As humanity spread throughout and beyond the solar system it continued to be divided along the old NATO/Pact line, with a handful of neutral and independent parties caught in between.

Some details still need to be worked out and I want to eventually insert it into some kind of lunar landscape. But you get the idea.

This particular bunker was designed with anti-vehicle operations in mind. A 20 mm auto-cannon and a trio of surface-to-orbit missiles make up its main armament. It had a crew of just four, who were rotated out regularly using the train seen in the bottom left.

Power was supplied by a small nuclear reactor that runs off of easy to handle uranium cartridges that can be switched out as needed by the crew. This reactor was capable of powering both this bunker and it’s neighbors in the even that the larger grid is disrupted. The bunker was also home to fairly powerful computer that provide’s guidance to the bunker’s missiles.

There were a few but not many options for crew comfort, you will notice a small kitchenette in the habitat section, and if you zoom in far enough you’ll see some personal items in some of the bunks.

This design did come with several issues however. While most supplied could be brought to the bunker by train, the missiles could only be reloaded by crews working on the surface. Similarly, while the turret could be operated and reloaded internally, most maintenance could only be conducted from the outside. In this timeline, these bunkers did their job until they eventually fell victim to orbital bombardment.

I’m still ironing out some of the basic ideas of this setting and I am interested in hearing you ideas. For example, the specifics of FTL have yet to be worked out, but I am currently mulling over slow(ish) modes of travel with a handful of faster “express” lanes. If you have comments or suggestions feel free to get in touch on twitter @expyblog.

Pirates…In Space!

Who doesn’t love a good brigand? Whether they are a robinhoodesque crusader or someone who is only looking out for number one, we seem to love pirates. So what about pirates in space? A lot of science fiction seems to treat space like an ocean. There are plenty of reasons to love these tropes, but they do present a challenge for worldbuilding. There is no reason why your science fiction can’t have hordes of swashbuckling brigands, but you should still attempt design your world in such a way that allows their escapades to make sense.

Treasure Planet had a wonderful age of sail aesthetic. Unfortunately, it does require a lot of worldbuilding to make believable. Source

For piracy to exist there needs to be something that is worth moving before star systems. Travel between planets, or even star systems, would be horrendously expensive, dangerous, and may take years depending on what kind of FTL your universe has. With so many risks inherent in moving goods from one place to another there has to be some reward.

In order for piracy to work there need to be reasons for a ship to stop. False distress calls are one way to do this, but might quickly reach its limit. The other way is to create a universe where FLT is accessible but still has logical choke points. There are a few ways to make this work. Portals are the easiest.

Portals provide natural choke point. Areas where ships have to pass through in order to get from on planet to then other. In the case of The Protectorate or Star Gate this is somewhat artificial. But in a setting like the one we see in The Interdependency naturally occurring portals can be found. Here Scalzi presents a universe where ships are able to travel between stars thanks to what amounts to a series of interstellar tunnels that still require large chunks of travel time between portal and planet. While traveling between portal and planet, a ship may fall victim to pirates or to mutiny, but one would hope that designated exit points would allow the navy to keep a close eye on affairs.

Another option for navigation to be difficult enough that everyone uses the same well mapped trade routes. Star Wars works this way. In Star Wars, or at least in Legends, trade is focused on a series of major hyperspace lanes. This means that finding new hyperspace lanes or knowing of secret ones has incredible value, and that a blockade of a given lane or the ability to intercept ships in transit can wreak havoc with the local or even galactic economy. While pirates are not likely to have the ability to stop ships in transit, common and well traveled routes makes travel predictable and gives pirates the opportunity to intercept ships as they drop out of FTL.

Star Wars features well mapped trade routes and interdictor ships capable of pulling vessels out of hyperspace. It makes finding new or secret routes an important plot point, even if travel times seem a little too brief. Source

Now that we’ve covered how goods might be moved between planets, let’s talk about the why. What could be worth flying between stars?

Information can be transmitted between stars, and even if data needs to be moved on some physical media there is not really a reason to send a person instead of a drone. A story about software pirates would be hard to pull off, so we need a universe where moving physical goods between stars is worth the immense costs and risks that come with it.

Ideally, every new colony will be founded with the goal of one day being self-sufficient. Over time the settle core of systems should become major producers of food, finished goods, and raw materials, and this settled core should then be connected to the newer colonies by a network of trade routes designed to prop these new colonies up until they can support themselves. This begs the question of why the core planets care about founding and propping up these new colonies. For this reason I think for most pirate settings it helps to assume that trade occurs between a mix of developed worlds and struggling colonies, that colonies are set up with the goal of producing a specific resource, and that monopolies prevent many colonies from becoming fully self-sufficient.

Now let’s go through some good space piracy tactics. Assuming that colonies are dependent on their home worlds for support.

  • Distress Calls – space is huge, and dangerous. If a ship malfunctions in transit there might be little chance of rescue or of witnesses. A distress cal would not be out of place, and might even be seen by less than scrupulous captains as an opportunity for some illicit sabotage. All our pirates need for the ruse to be convincing is a an appropriately derelict ship. Once within range the pirates will be free to disable the approaching ship, or wait until a salvage team boards and can be taken hostage.
  • Sabotage – the easiest and safest way for pirates to operate would be to have contacts back on the home world. A few port workers on the payroll could ensure that incoming freighters come loaded with all manner of malfunction. Then when a freighter’s engines fail and its left drifting in space our favorites brigands will approach ready to “help.”
  • Mutiny – a mutiny could happen for a variety of reasons. The crew could be under paid and overworked, or could have cut a deal to steal their ship’s munitions cargo and sell them to local rebels, or might be trying to steal the ship’s load of vital pharmaceuticals to help their families instead of the local oligarchs. Mixing motives here offers opportunities to put a mix of corrupt and sympathetic characters in the ranks of the mutineers and play their conflicting personalties against each other.
  • Ambush – many flavors of FTL result in natural choke points. This is especially true if portals are involved. Incoming ships would have little idea of what is actually waiting for them just beyond the portal’s exit, and would have to trust in local security. In developed systems the jumping off point will likely be well policed, but worlds that exist on the periphery are much more likely to experience gaps in protection. FTL systems that require cool down times will result in similar, but likely more dispersed choke points. This gives pirates an opportunity to ply their craft with less threat of detection. Although locating targets would be more difficult in this situation.
  • Privateers – people love to make money and governments love to save costs if they can. Disrupting an enemy’s supply lines can be hugely advantageous, but in the vast expanse of space no force will be able to be everywhere at once. Privateers offer a low cost option to hinder the enemy’s activities without putting a faction’s own ships at risk. There are other advantages as well. In a setting where spaces are vast and travel times long, armed conflicts could go on for decades. Employing privateers allows governments to put distance between themselves and the actions they take against rival factions.

There are almost certainly other strategies for our space pirates that I have over looked. Technological advancements would surely create new opportunities for our brigands. If you have any ideas for how pirates could work in the far future I would love to hear about them on twitter @expyblog.

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Dreadnought Approaching

“Captain! Martian dreadnought approaching! Camera four!”
Captain Davis pulled into his chair and fastened the tethers that would hold him there if the ship had to make any sudden maneuvers. “Faction identification?”
“No beacon sir. Still waiting on a report from Optics, but no visible markings.”
“Crap.” Davis switched his console to the number four camera and a silvery dot appeared on his screen against the emptiness of space. “How long until it gets within range?”
“Six minutes.”
“And the Portsmouth? How far out is it?”
“Eight minutes.”
Davis swore. He had allowed their escort to go too far from them. They’d be sure to regret not having the cruiser and its guns if the dreadnaught came within firing range. “Get ready to hail them. All frequencies.” He turned to his left and selected a prerecorded message in eleven martian dialects, all demanding to know the dreadnaught’s intentions.
Davis resolved not to wait for the radio waves to go across the space between them and back. “Put the ship on alert, and call back the Portsmouth. Are the spitfires fueled?”
“Almost. Forty-two are reported ready, twenty-two still in progress. Autocannons are all loaded.”
Davis nodded to himself. Had the dreadnought appeared earlier during their test flights they would have been defenseless. “Launch all of our fighters.”
The alert aircraft took off immediately, becoming blips on the ship’s radar screen. Davis was relieved to see his untested crew working without hiccups as they readied the other spitfires for launch.
Meanwhile, the minutes ticked by with no response from the dreadnought. Davis hoped that theirs was a chance encounter, but he knew the odds of that. The space around them was completely devoid of anything of value. That was why they had picked it. It was a place to test Earth’s new carrier away from prying eyes.
“Two minutes.”
Still no response from the dreadnought. “And the Portsmouth?”
“Four minutes.”
Davis looked back to view of the dreadnought on his console. It was now close enough for him to begin to make out more details of its design. Like most martian ships it resembled a slab of iron with an engine strapped to one end. On its hull was an assortment of weapons clusters, sensor arrays, and docked support craft that looked like off-color pixels on his display.
Davis knew that in a one-on-one fight the carrier would be outgunned by the dreadnought. Their ship was designed to carry and support fighters, not exchange broadsides. He also knew that many of their spitfires would be lost to martian point defense canons. Space combat was still new to humans, while martians had over a century experience. His pilots would be turning theory into practice as they went. It was going to get a lot of them killed.
“One minute.”
Davis glanced at the blips on the radar screen. All of them were waiting for his orders. If he hesitated any longer the dreadnought would be on top of them.
“Engage.”